A Short Story by Edward Picot

My father was a thin, serious man with a bald patch on the back of his head and a burning pain in his tummy. He used to lie upstairs in bed and tell us Bible stories. He was a devout Christian. If we fell out with each other and went to him for a judgement, instead of making a simple decision about who was right and who was wrong he would tell us to consider one another's feelings. He would mention the Good Samaritan, or Jesus telling the crowd not to throw stones at the adultress. "You mustn't only see things from your own point of view," he would say. "Try to imagine how the other person feels." So we frequently took our problems to our mother instead, because although her decisions were hasty and arbitrary they were at least clear-cut.

There were three of us - my elder brother, my little sister and myself - and we all went to the same Church of England school. When I was almost five years old my mother took me to meet a man called Mr Anderson, who was the headmaster. He was sitting on a wooden chair in the empty school hall, as if he lived there all the time. He was big and chubby, with sticking-out ears and a bright smiling face. He introduced himself by lifting me onto his lap, squeezing me in his hot arms, and asking me if I loved him. I said yes, and since his face was close to mine I rubbed noses with him. "You're like an Eskimo!" he exclaimed. "They rub noses." I was completely won over, and decided that Mr Anderson was more fun than my serious, high-minded father.

Shortly afterwards I entered the chaotic world of my first school. It was a strictly ageist establishment, in which the children of one year had as little as possible to do with the children of another. My brother demonstrated this principle on my first morning, by walking with me as far as the gate, then turning his back on me as soon as we entered the playground. He ran off to play with his own friends, and when I tried to follow him he told me anglrily to leave him alone. When my little sister started school a year later, I snubbed her in exactly the same way.

Mr Anderson was the hero of the school. He was the one who stood up and spoke to us in Assembly. His gaze went roaming from face to face, and each of us in turn felt a little warm shock as his moist brown eyes met ours. We all wanted to be his favourties, and sometimes he would make us feel special by impulsively grabbing us and squeezing us and asking us if we loved him. The answer was always yes, of course.

He talked so feelingly about the persections of the saints that we half-believed he was a persecuted saint himself; and his Bible stories, unlike the moralistic ones my father came out with, were full of interesting details about people being stoned to death, baked in ovens, stripped naked and frozen or hung upside-down on crosses. He was a charismatic and emotional teacher. At times he could make whole roomfuls helpless with laughter by daringly mentioning willies or bottoms in the middle of a lesson. At other times, he could reduce his audience to tears.

Next to him in Assembly, staring stonily ahead with her lips pressed together, sat his arch enemy, Mrs Townley. The entire school knew that the two of them hated each other, but nobody knew why. Of course we were all on Mr Anderson's side. Mrs Townley was old and fat and ugly. Her hair was orange, with grey bits close to her head. Her little sharp pointy nose and her little sharp pointy chin grew towards each other, just like the noses and chins of witches in fairy stories. She was always strict and severe in class, and she never made jokes.

The school stood on a steep hill above a churchyard. Twice a week we all formed up in twos, which was called a crocodile, and trooped down the steep path to the church for a morning service. Down the middle of the aisle ran a strip of iron grating with darkness underneath. Rumour had it that some of the dead people were kept down there: I always looked through and tried to see them. All I could see was emptiness and darkness, and I didn't like to look for too long, because I was worried that the grating might give way and I might fall down amongst the dead people and not be able to get out again.

I took a personal interest in death. Our father was away from home for a long time in a local hospital; then, after a short return, he had to go even further away, to a bigger hospital in London. Nothing much was said on the subject, but in a matter-of-fact daytime way I got hold of the idea that he might be going to die. In a night-time way I got hold of the idea that one day I would die myself. I asked my mother about it once when she was tucking me into bed, and she replied "Oh, not for a long time yet." But the amount of time didn't seem to matter. The thought of other people dying was mysterious and exciting, but the thought of dying myself was horrifying, like those dreams where I fell off a cliff and woke up just as I hit the ground. And although I believed everything I was told - mostly by Mr Anderson - about going to heaven if I was good, somehow it didn't help me. It belonged to the grownup world or laws and morals which framed my inner life without touching its core.

My father never said much about heaven. He believed in doing the right thing because it was right, not because it would bring a reward. And anyway his ideas of right and wrong were too complicated to allow sharp distinctions between people who deserved heaven and people who deserved hell. Mr Anderson, on the other hand, had no such scruples. If a child was naughty, he would threaten that child with hell, and he would describe its punishments in such vividly sadistic terms that the child would be dumbstruck with fear, and the rest of us would be thrilled.

But the world of adult morality was unfathomable. One minute you were good, and the next you were bad, often for no apparent reason. One afternoon my class was being taken by Mr Anderson, and we were all drawing pictures of our mummies and daddies. Mr Anderson, prowling from desk to desk, suddenly flew into a rage with the girl who sat next to me, Debbie Chambers, because she always drew hands as mittens instead of showing the individual fingers. I was terror-stricken, because I had been secretly admiring her technique and planning to adopt it myself. I was convinced that Mr Anderson would find something wrong with my drawing too, and sure enough when he came to me he asked me crossly why my daddy was lying in bed. But when I explained that he was poorly in hospital he unexpectedly gave me a hug and a gold star. I began to wonder if mentioning my father's illness might be a way of automatically turning myself into a good boy.

Eventually some of my admiration for Mr Anderson started to wear off. His habit of grabbing us and asking if we loved him, which I had found delightful at first, began to make me feel uncomfortable after a while. On one occasion, as I was getting dressed in the cloakroom after a games lesson, I found that my willy had grown and stiffened and was sticking out in front of me as it sometimes did. mr Anderson always took the boys for football while Mrs Townley took the girls for netball, and he stood in the cloakroom watching us while we changed. Just as I was about to pull on my pants he noticed my willy. He walked quickly over to me and said "Oh look, it's standing up all by itself"; and reaching out his forefinger he placed it on the tip, pressed down, then took it away so that my willy sprang back up. I felt embarrassed, and hastily pulled up my pants. At once Mr Anderson knelt down, gave me one of his hot hugs and asked me if I loved him. I replied rather unwillingly that I did; but he must have noticed my tone, because he let me go and said "You're getting too big for cuddles, aren't you?" Then he got up and went away without looking at me again.

It wasn't that I doubted his saintliness, but I began to realize that there was more than one kind of saint, and his was not the kind I liked best. In the end I preferred my father's kind. I had a mental image of him lying quietly in bed, wrapped in his dressing-gown which looked too big around his neck and wrists, smiling his gaunt smile and trying to persuade us to be kind to one another. This image intensified while he was away from us in hospital.

Mr Anderson talked about love just as my father did, but his kind of love had less to do with inner effort and more to do with hugging and asking personal questions. It manifested itself most powerfully on Games Afternoons. At the end of a football lesson he would make us strip naked and wash ourselves one at a time under the freezing jet of water from the brass drinking tap on the cloakroom wall. Sometimes he would stand waiting with a big towel to rub us dry himself. Once, while this ritual was taking place, it began to pour with rain outside. Those of us who were still shivering and waiting our turns looked out through the cloakroom door and watched the fat raindrops rebounding from the tarmac in the playground. Mr Anderson began to watch them too; and when the washing and drying were over he announced, suddenly and angrily, that everyone was making too much noise getting dressed, so as a punishment we were all going to get undressed again and run around the playground with nothing on, until he told us we could come back indoors.

After only a few moments, however, we were sharply ordered back inside, not by Mr Anderson but by Mrs Townley, who had somehow taken his place in the cloakroom door. We obeyed her instructions, half-expecting Mr Anderson to reappear and put her his her place; but he was nowhere to be seen. Mrs Townley's face was even grimmer than usual.

One morning a few weeks later Mr Anderson gave us all a surprise. he announced in Assembly that he was going away at the end of term to teach in another school, somewhere a long way off. He didn't really want to go, he said, but God had called him. Even if you didn't want to go where God told you, you had no choice but to obey; and even though he loved us all and didn't want to leave us, he would have to go away to the other school, because God had sent him there. We were all very solemn and sad by the time he finished; some of us had tears on our cheeks; and Mr Anderson's own eyes were shining.

Something else happened at about the same time. Our mother went down to London to visit our father one day, and that afternoon, when she had brought us home from school, she told us he was dead. My little sister burst into tears at once, simply because she could tell from my mother's face that it was a sad piece of news; my brother turned an angry red colour, as if he were about to punch someone; but my own reaction was a feeling of hollow carelessness. Our father had been away from home for so long that I had already decided, privately, he would never be coming back.

Later that week, at school, as we were walking through the churchyard for a morning service, we saw a man digging a grave at a little distance from the path. On our way to the service we had to walk in order, two by two, but on the way back we were less strictly supervised, and my brother came searching along the line until he found me.

"That's Dad's grave," he said. "Come and have a look."

It was so unusual for him to seek me out in this way, and he looked so serious, that I felt a squeezing sensation in my chest. I followed him to the grave. It was a deep black slot in the grass, and the workman was standing waist-deep in it. Alongside was a big pile of moist, dark, rich-smelling soil.

"Is that my Dad's grave?" said my brother.

The workman looked up in surprize at the two of us: my brother frowning his fierce frown, and me standing just behind him, politely curious. He smiled and said he didn't know whose grave it was.

There was a silence while my brother took in this piece of information. Then he said, "Did it take long to dig?"

"I've been here all morning," said the workman, "and I'm not finished yet."

I looked into the hole. It was deep already, and narrow too. The darkness underneath the grating in the church was an empty sort of darkness, as if you could fall into it and keep falling forever; but the bottom of this grave was cramped and airless, like the bottom of a trap designed never to let its victim out.

When I looked up again, my brother was gone. He was already on his way back to the path and the children of his own year. I followed him, and the sound of the gravedigger's spade, resuming its work, came with me.

The next morning, in Assembly, Mr Anderson told the whole school about our father's death. he was a very good man, said Mr Anderson, and did a lot of work for the church. My sister cried again, and my brother looked swollen-faced, but I felt proud of my fame. This was going to make me a good boy for a long time to come, I felt sure. I also felt sure that Mr Anderson would show his sympathy by hugging me and telling me he loved me, but he never did. He seemed to have given up hugging and talking about love all of a sudden.

© 1999 by Edward Picot